Hillary Mann Leverett on U.S. Policy Toward the Islamic State and the Folly of Sanctioning Russia

This weekend, Hillary went on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Parry  to discuss the Obama administration’s fumbling response to the Islamic State (see here and here or click on videos above) and the West’s rising tensions with Russia over Ukraine (see here or click on videos above).  Regarding the calls for the Obama administration to expand the current U.S. air campaign against IS targets in northern Iraq into Syria as well, Hillary recounts

“I remember a year ago this weekend.  I was on a different program [see here], and I said, ‘Wait a minute.  Don’t go bomb Assad’s military in Syria, because they’re one of the only militaries that’s fighting ISIS.  We’ll essentially be al-Qa’ida or ISIS’ air force if we do so.’  The president was correct, even though he took a lot of backlash, not to bomb Assad’s army last year, and he’s probably correct not to [mount a bombing campaign against ISIS] this year, because that’s exactly what ISIS wants—they want the United States back in, full throttle, to send hundreds of thousands of troops back and make this an all-out war with the United States to take over their swath of the Middle East.”

And, while Obama’s surely more-revealing-than-he-intended acknowledgment, “We don’t have a strategy,” was maladroit in the extreme, Hillary reminds,

“In the Bush administration, we forget, but it took the administration about a month to come up with plans to attack Afghanistan.  They also had no strategy, even though al-Qa’ida had been attacking us for six years, from 1995 on.  We knew al-Qa’ida, we knew Afghanistan, but we had no strategy.

My concern is that the president—and it isn’t just the president, but it’s the entire foreign policy elite and bureaucracy—has not learned a thing since 9/11.  Here we are—we know Iraq, we had 150,000 troops there, we were there for years, we bombed that country for a long time.  We know the situation, and we still don’t have a strategy…

If there were a strategy, it would actually tell the American public the hard things they need to hear, which is that you don’t partner with, align with, have coalitions just with countries that have like-minded, so-called ‘values.’  You deal with countries as they are—like Iran and Assad’s Syria, who are the only governments in the region fighting ISIS.  And to have this policy that keeps them in the ground is enormously destructive to the United States.”

Hillary points out another serious defect in the U.S. policy discussion—namely, political and policy elites’ collective and willful refusal to acknowledge that the Islamic State has popular support:

“A Saudi-funded newspaper, Al Hayat, did a poll in Saudi Arabia, of Saudi public opinion.  They found that 92 percent of Saudis believe that ISIS conforms to their view of Islamic values and Islamic law.  So we have our head in the sand—that this makes no sense, everybody hates [ISIS], and we can recruit our Sunni autocracies as allies to fund even more Sunni militants to deal with this.  That is insane…

[T]o the extent that we support governments, like the Saudi government, that Saudis themselves and ISIL have as their target—their target is to bring down the Saudi government, to bring down the other Gulf autocracies and take over the heart of the Hijaz, Mecca and Medina—to the extent we are sending $60 billion in weapons systems to Saudi Arabia, ISIS has us in their sights.  Remember that the execution of [James] Foley happened not just because they were looking to kill an American, but when we started bombing them in Iraq.  It’s a very deliberate, sophisticated military strategy.”

On Russia and Ukraine, Hillary offers up the critically important but almost universally avoided truth about the self-damaging quality of America’s increasingly promiscuous resort to financial sanctions as a foreign policy tool (a truth that can also be made with reference to U.S. policy toward Iran):

“Not that I would agree to use force, but President Obama preemptively, almost immediately, and repeatedly has taken force off the table, and has said that we’re essentially going to rely on sanctions—sanctions that have not affected Russian calculations, and we have no basis to believe they will affect Russian calculations.  What we do know about sanctions is that it will be extremely counterproductive for us.  It will accelerate the replacement of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.  We’ve seen Russia and China coming closer together, the increase in the Chinese currency, the RMB, [becoming] more accepted internationally.  And once foreigners stop wanting the dollar, we’re done as a superpower.”

But that’s where the flailing and failing American hegemon seems determined to go.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Flynt Leverett on Iraqi Politics, Iranian-Iraqi relations, and How to Think About the Islamic State


Shortly before Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that he would support the nomination of Haidar al-Abadi to replace him, Flynt appeared on KPFK’s Background Briefing with Ian Masters to talk about Iran’s relations with Iraq and the importance of understanding the Islamic State as an externally-supported transnational movement.  To listen to the segment, click here.

Regarding Iran’s role in shaping the trajectory of Iraqi politics, Flynt notes,

“It’s certainly true that Iran has substantial influence over the Dawa party (Mr. Maliki’s party and Mr. Abadi’s party); it has great influence over basically all of the Shi’a Islamist parties.  Many of these parties started as opposition groups (opposition to Saddam Husayn).  The Islamic Republic supported many of these groups in exile in opposition to Saddam, and when Saddam was overthrown, these groups, these parties came back to Iraq and they became basically the most important political players in Iraqi politics.  Iran has very, very good relationships with all of them, with virtually all of the major figures in each of these parties.  They have a very strong relationship with Maliki; I’m sure they have a strong relationship with Abadi.

It’s wrong, though, to think of the Iranians as basically picking winners and losers in these battlesI think the Iranians are very careful basically to make sure they always have optionsEssentially, whoever would be able to put together a majority coalition in the parliament that would enable him to become the next prime minister of Iraq, whether it’s Mr. Maliki or whether it’s somebody else, is going to be someone, almost by definition, that the Iranians have a good working relationship with.  They try not to be in a situation where they put all their eggs in one basket, stake everything on one particular candidate.”

As to why Iran continues to support Iraq’s territorial and political integrity, Flynt explains,

“I think one reason why Iran would like to see Iraq stay together is that the majority of the population in Iraq is Shi’a, it’s at least sixty percent Shi’a.  And while you could, in theory, create this Shi’a-majority state in southern Iraq (it would be an oil-rich state, a fairly populous state), there are also Shi’a who live throughout Iraq; there are Shi’a who live in provinces where they’re not the majority of the population.  And if you broke up Iraq, the status of those Shi’a would be much more exposed, much more at risk.

I think also, from a geopolitical standpoint, if you’re worried about what can happen in Sunni-majority parts of Iraq where you have this ISIS state taking root in a context where Iraq is at least nominally unitary, why would you think that’s going to be better if you actually break up Iraq?  That problem isn’t going to get better; it could, in significant ways, get worse, from an Iranian standpoint.

So, in terms of not wanting to see post-Saddam Shi’a political gains eroded in Iraq and also in terms of the geopolitics and the problems that could come up in non-Shi’a-majority parts of Iraq, the Iranians think it’s better to try and manage those problems with Iraq as a unitary state than not.”

Turning to the Islamic State, Flynt argues that it needs to be understood as an externally-supported transnational movement.

“I think it is a big mistake to read the Islamic State movement as just a bunch of thugs.  I think these guys are very smart, and they have a political program, an expansionist political program, that aims to create a state which actually controls an ever-expanding amount of territory.  They have a political program that is, by orders of magnitude, more developed than anything al-Qa’ida ever came up with.  These guys are in serious business, not just from a military or we might say a terrorist standpoint; they’re in serious business politically…

I think they have gotten support from a number of different sources, including some of our so-called allies.  There has been a lot of financial support at least that’s come out of Saudi Arabia, some Gulf Arab states, for the Islamic State.  Turkey has been supportive of them at various junctures.  So they do have external support.

It is [also] a transnational movement.  It’s not overwhelmingly Iraqi at all.  There’s an important figure in the movement who’s a Chechen, from Russia.  There are Uighurs from China who are fighting in it.  There are people from all over the Arab world, really from all over the Muslim world who have come to join this cause.

So it is not just a bunch of thugs.  This is a serious movement, with serious external support and a transnational base.”

Just as the Islamic State movement has a transnational base, it is increasingly having a transnational impact.  That the Islamic State has an appreciable presence in Syria as well as in Iraq is well-known.  The most recent manifestation of the movement’s transnational impact can be seen in Lebanon, where it has attacked the town of Arsal near the Lebanese-Syrian border.  This means that the only possible solution to the ISIS problem is necessarily regional in nature.

But U.S. policy remains disinclined to pursue a genuinely regional approach to dealing with the Islamic State.  As Flynt points out, understanding Iraq’s current political challenges and the Islamic State’s rise requires a critically sober examination of the deep incoherence and internal contradictions in American strategy toward Iraq and toward the Middle East as a whole:

The United States says it supports a unitary Iraq—and yet, even before the invasion of 2003 when Saddam was overthrown, the United States for the last twenty or twenty-five years has been pursuing policies that progressively undermined any potential national unity in Iraq.  I think there’s a real strategic incoherence there in American policy, cutting across multiple administrations of both parties.

One reason the United States says it still supports a unitary Iraq is because basically none of Iraq’s neighbors—whether those are countries the United States has close alliances with, like Turkey, or whether it’s a country like Iran that the United States has strained relations with—everyone in the neighborhood says it doesn’t want to see Iraq broken up.  The United States makes noises like it respects that.”

But those noises don’t comport with the deeply destructive on-the-ground impact of U.S. policy.  In reviewing ISIS’s external supporters, Flynt notes that the United States has its “own hand to play in the creation and growth” of what is now called the Islamic State:

“Everybody talks about what a great idea the ‘surge’ was in Iraq in 2007-2008, but basically what the surge amounted to was U.S. arming and training 80,000 Sunni militants of various descriptions.  While we were training them, we paid them $300 a month each so that they wouldn’t kill Americans during the period while we were training them.  But we helped to feed what is now ISIS in a big way with the surge.

Then, after the unrest started in Syria in March 2011, and Saudi money, Gulf Arab money started flowing to this group (ostensibly so they could fight the Syrian government under President Assad), we basically turned a blind eye to all of this.  We wanted to see the Syrian opposition supported, we wanted to see President Assad overthrown, and these guys were the most capable fighters in that arena.  So, if our so-called allies were supporting these guys, that was fine with us.  And now—certainly for us and, I think, there’s a good chance for the Saudis—this movement has slipped the leash, and is no longer really responsive to some of the places from which it got early support.”

Even now, in dealing with the Islamic State, the Obama administration’s decision to launch airstrikes against ISIS fighters plays right into the Islamic State’s jihadist narrative.  As Flynt puts it, “Nothing will rehabilitate these guys like getting bombed by the United States.”  More broadly,

The biggest mistake we have made (and the 2003 invasion is a major manifestation of this, but not the only manifestation of it) is to think that we can micromanage political outcomes in a place like Iraq—whether by deciding who we arm, who we don’t arm, to whom do we provide close air support, to whom do we not provide close air support—that we can use these kinds of crude tools and micromanage political outcomes in a society that’s this complicated.  This is not just ‘it doesn’t work’; it is grossly self-damaging and counterproductive for American interests.

The demographics of Iraq as such that, in any kind of representative political order, the major political players are going to be, first and foremost, Shi’a Islamists, and, secondly, Kurdish parties.  That’s just where the demographics are.  Sunnis in Iraq are probably at this point twenty percent of the population at best, at most.

And so we’ve got to understand that elected governments in Iraq—every government elected since Saddam was overthrown has been a coalition of Shi’a Islamists and Kurds.  We may not like that, we may not like that these guys are all friends of Iran or others we don’t like, but that is the reality.  And if you want to try to maintain some semblance of order in this part of the Middle East, you have to be willing to work with the governments that are there, the governments that are rooted there, work with them, quit trying to undermine them, quit withholding cooperation with them [as we did with]… Maliki The United States messed up Iraq by trying to play those games, and it can only make things worse if it continues to play them.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Hillary Mann Leverett on America’s Real Strategic Failure in Iraq

Hillary appeared on CCTV’s The Heat to discuss President Obama’s decision to order U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); click on the video above or here.  In her segment, she focused on the deep causes and historical antecedents of America’s current policy crisis in Iraq.

“President Obama is now the fourth U.S. president in a row to order military action in Iraq, which some refer to (I think accurately) as the ‘graveyard of American ambition.’  That’s the big strategic picture here—that, regardless of what we bomb, how much we bomb, this is the graveyard of American ambition.

The invasion of Iraq, the continued occupation, and, now the blowback that we’re receiving puts the United States, I think, in a dire strategic corner.

–If we bomb, we are likely to galvanize Sunni Muslims across the Muslim world, not just in the Middle East.  It’s not going to be everybody, but we’re likely to galvanize a strong recruitment tool for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

–If we don’t bomb, we could face a really serious confrontation in or around Erbil, where the United States has thousands of people—not just in the American consulate and all of the associated U.S. government agencies there, but a lot of businessmen, from oil companies and other places.

So we’re really, I think, in a serious, if not dire strategic corner.”

As Hillary explained, America’s broader strategic failure in Iraq has its own deep roots and historical antecedents—which are, in turn, inextricably and causally related to the rise of ISIS (which, since the end of June, has been calling itself simply ad-dawla al-islāmiyya—“the Islamic state”).

“It’s a problem the United States has had for decades, and it’s a bipartisan buy-in by the foreign policy elite here in Washington:  first, training the Sunni Islamist militias in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to oust the Soviets, and then in more recent times the Bush administration’s strategy, what was called the ‘surge,’ was really about arming, funding, and training 80,000 Sunni Islamists inside Iraq.  And then President Obama, on his watch, armed, trained, and funded Islamist militias in Libya and so-called ‘moderate’ opposition in Syria

We have been, over the years, pursuing these policies that have been not only counterproductive but, in recent history (the past three years), have fed upon themselves.  So we’ve destroyed the state in Libya, opened it up to an Islamist internecine militia battle zone; same thing in Syria, and we’ve continued to turn a blind eye to that happening to IraqThese three battlefields, in a lot of ways, are melding together, the fighters are melding together.  ISIS is not made up of primarily or overwhelmingly Iraqis.  There are Chechens from Russia, there are Uighurs from China, there are Saudis, there are Tunisians, there are lots of other nationalities there.

So this idea that we are constantly presented in Washington, that if Prime Minister Maliki were just more inclusive, this wouldn’t be a problem, is really strange on its face.  There is no government in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or anybody else, who could be more inclusive of a terrorist organization that has significant foreign fighters within it.  That just can’t be.  [And, of course, ISIS also has] a great deal of money, and U.S. weapons that they’ve either confiscated or they were given indirectly by our so-called ‘allies’ in the Gulf.”

Responding to what is becoming part of Washington’s current conventional wisdom—that Obama’s “failure” to use force in Syria and his politically-driven reticence to re-engage in Iraq have conditioned ISIS’s rise—Hillary points out that this argument depicts on-the-ground dynamics in a manner diametrically opposed to on-the-ground reality.  By doing so, it precludes sober consideration of the real requirements for a political solution.

“There’s a lot of focus here in Washington on how the president’s failure to bomb the Syrian military last year, in 2013, led to this increase in power of ISIS.  It’s really just the opposite.  The Syrian military was one of the few armies battling ISIS on a daily basis.  If we could actually change the focus here—and it’s something that many Americans cannot even conceive of, because of the political narrative laid out principally by the White House that the Syrian government is irredeemable—if we could possibly change that and see what our interests are (which is that the Syrian government is fighting ISIS), that could…could open the door to talk to inconvenient but essential players, like the Syrian government, like the Iranian government, that have a lot of keys to the solution here.”

More broadly, Hillary argues that the idea of putting American “boots on the ground” in Iraq again is not just “politically untenable” for President Obama; this idea reflects a mindset—about using military forces to micromanage political outcomes in non-Western countries the United States wants to subordinate—that, strategically, “has failed us going all the way back to Vietnam.”  As she elaborates,

“It has failed us in Vietnam, it has failed us throughout the Middle East, in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We have a proven track record of that not working to achieve strategic objectives.

While I would agree that the United States has to be very engaged in the Middle East, very engaged in the world, the idea to be ‘interventionist’ is very, very problematic, particularly in the Middle EastIt has not worked for us; we have a proven track record of failure in that regardWe need to step back and not say, ‘Qadhafi has to go, Assad has to go,’ and now, ‘Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq has to go.’  Instead, we [should] recognize that’s the Iraqi government.  It’s certainly not perfect; no government is.  We agreed to sell them F-16s and Apache helicopters, attack aircraft, so that they could take of some of these problems themselves, and then we withheld them because [al-Maliki] wasn’t doing what we thought he should be doing politically.

That’s not going to work.  I agree we should support governments that are there and sell them arms as other countries do, but to try and manipulate and micromanage political outcomes has failed us over and over again.”

Because—contrary to presidential candidate Barack Obama’s rhetoric in 2008—the Obama administration has not rejected this profoundly self-damaging mindset, it is facing massive strategic failure in the Middle East.  The administration is not, as many of its critics charge, simply responding to one crisis after another.  In reality, Hillary notes,

“Many of [these crises] are self-generated—in large part because of the administration’s strategic failure in responding to the Arab Awakening, principally in 2011.  President Obama had a new shot when he came into office, and I think repeatedly has failed to put together a coherent strategic plan, outcome, for looking at the Middle East.  We get focused on these day-to-day problems, as horrific as they sometimes are, without thinking about the strategic picture.

So the pressure, for example, to try to force Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki out has just made him turn to Russia—which, literally overnight, doubled the aircraft we had given IraqNouri al-Maliki has gotten much closer to the Iranians.  And now you hear Iraqi government officials say those [Russia and Iran] are their real friends—because when they needed it, when they were asking for airstrikes against ISIS, the president, the Obama administration was withholding them until [Iraq] had a more ‘inclusive’ governing policy.

This is not a strategy, either for the Middle East or for the United States in the world, as we see power shifting from the west to the east, and we see critically important countries in the east—whether it’s China, India, or Russia, Iran or Iraq—because the United States is so antagonistic to all of them, they are aligning togetherThat is something that is not going to turn out well for the United States.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett